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Sheridan Webb

The Training Designer's Club

Training Design Consultant and Community Manager

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How the SCARF Model can enhance L&D research and delivery

To ignite curiosity, give your learners' brains what they need – a SCARF.

Many people feel anxious about attending training events, or are reluctant to participate because it feels like punishment rather than reward. This, of course, affects their openness to learning and has a direct impact on application and results.

One way that we as L&D can take away the fear and replace it with curiosity is to give peoples’ brains what they need: A SCARF.

If we’re in a better state of mind for learning, it's far more likely that we will actively engage with it, reflect on what it means, retain what we learn and transfer that learning to the workplace.

Introducing the SCARF Model

When I discovered the SCARF model by David Rock I loved it because it’s simple, has face validity, is practical and seems to relate to almost every human interaction.

If you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend you read his book Your Brain at Work. But here’s a very simple summary.

Rock suggests that the brain’s primary job is to keep us safe and it judges every stimulus as a friend or foe. It will naturally move towards things that are rewarding and away from things that are threatening. And it’s not just physical stimulus, it’s about social interactions too. Rock identified five domains where our brain actively seeks to maximise reward and eliminate threat:

  • Status – how valuable we feel to others and our self-image
  • Certainty – how confident we feel about how things work/outcomes
  • Autonomy – how much control we have about the things that happen to us
  • Relatedness – how connected we feel to others and our acceptance by them
  • Fairness – how reasonable we feel decisions that affect us are

Engaging the brain with SCARF

Learning something new can make us feel vulnerable and the brain will naturally go on high alert. Therefore, we need to provide the brain with positive stimuli for these five domains, so it isn’t in ‘fight or flight’ mode and can relax, becoming more curious, open, honest and engaged. All of which puts us in a much better position to learn.

If we’re in a better state of mind for learning, it's far more likely that we will actively engage with it, reflect on what it means, retain what we learn and transfer that learning to the workplace.

So, as L&D professionals, we need to provide positive experiences in each of these five areas. That begins with the way we research and design training, not just in the way we deliver it.

Domain 1: Status

People want to feel valuable and recognised and there’s a few things that we can do to make this happen:

  1. Find out what participants want from the training and clearly demonstrate how their needs will be met. Being listened to, and seeing that we’ve been listened to makes us feel that we matter. Do this at the research stage so their needs are baked into the design
  2. Recognise the knowledge and experience that participants bring with them, and give them the opportunity to share it. Allowing people to showcase their expertise adds real value to the training. Sharing stories is not only fulfilling for them, but for other participants too
  3. Give everyone the chance to shine by making sure that the training plays to different strengths at different times. This means using different methods that tap into different skills
  4. Recognise progress and celebrate success. Include mini goals and time for reflection to allow people to measure their own growth as they move through the learning

It’s worthwhile remembering that as we strive to create a rigorous yet engaging training course, people are still at the heart of it.

Domain 2: Certainty

This is about avoiding nasty surprises and managing people’s expectations so they can fully commit to the learning before it begins. We can provide certainty by:

  1. Sending out detailed joining instructions that outline what will be covered and the practical arrangements for the day
  2. Creating independent study (pre-course work) that sets the scene for the main event and directly links to the objective of the course so it’s clear how attending it will add value
  3. Sharing an agenda/timetable and sticking to it. People have busy lives and courses that don’t start and end on time can cause anxiety and practical difficulties 
  4. Agreeing ground rules together at the start of a session, and clarifying what contributions people will be asked to make, when and how 
  5. Making sure that participants are able to use any tech required before the session, and running a set-up/familiarisation session in advance if necessary

Domain 3: Autonomy

This is about feeling in charge of our own destiny and having a say in the decisions that directly affect us. As training designers and facilitators we can give people autonomy by:

  1. Including optional content, especially as self-study before or after live events. However, we need to provide guidance as to when each piece of optional learning would be helpful so participants can make the right decision for themselves 
  2. Making exercises flexible. There’s usually more than one way to explore content, so wherever possible, give people the choice. If the training is well designed and objectives are clear, it shouldn’t be too difficult to include different options that all lead to the same learning. Be mindful though (linking back to certainty) that some people do like clear instructions, so offering two or three specific options may provide the autonomy without taking away the certainty
  3. Allowing people to self-select their groups in breakout exercises so they can work with people they think they will get most value from
  4. Encouraging them to apply a technique or tool to something specific to them makes the training more relevant and will help to transfer learning

Learners matter much more than the content or process.

Domain 4: Relatedness

We are social animals and learning together not only makes it more fun, but also provides valuable insights from others to enrich and expand the learning. As training designers we should:

  1. Use ice-breakers. A simple ice-breaker that’s linked to the theme begins the process of making connections. If we want people to learn from and with each other, they need to know who else is participating
  2. Encourage social learning by including discussions and group exercises, and regularly mixing the groups. Even if learning is completed via an online course, you can encourage social interaction by providing a discussion board or asking people to attend a live ‘welcome’ meeting via Zoom or Teams
  3. Use stories and case studies that are based on real-life. Even better, ask people to bring their own stories for analysis
  4. Allow time in breaks and at the start (or end) of exercises for people to just chat. They will often learn useful things that aren't directly linked to the course content just by talking to people they wouldn’t normally get the chance to
  5. Utilise peer-peer feedback. We learn so much from observing and listening to others, it’s a huge opportunity to take advantage of. Often peer feedback is valued more because it’s being given by ‘someone like me’ rather than a trainer or expert, plus peers may see things that the trainer doesn’t, adding breadth as well as depth to the learning experience

Domain 5: Fairness

This is about consistency of approach and feeling that everyone has the same opportunities to try and is being held to the same standards. For training designers and facilitators, this might mean:

  1. Taking extra effort to make sure that the training is accessible for all. This might mean providing handouts in another language, subtitling videos, respecting prayer times or not using bandwidth-heavy online tools
  2. Being clear about any assessment criteria and how it needs to be met. Keeping pass/fail assessment to a minimum and (where possible) allowing people to submit assessments in a format that suits them
  3. Providing checklists for peer-to-peer feedback to ensure consistency between people. This may conflict with the need for autonomy, so make it clear whether the checklist is there for guidance or to be followed precisely

It may seem that a lot of this advice is common sense, and it is. But it’s worthwhile remembering that as we strive to create a rigorous yet engaging training course, people are still at the heart of it.

Even when training is purely online and we never meet them in person, learners matter much more than the content or process. For them to engage with the training we design, for them to find it useful and – most importantly – to apply it, we need to satisfy the needs of their brain, and we do that by thinking about SCARF.

Author Profile Picture
Sheridan Webb

Training Design Consultant and Community Manager

Read more from Sheridan Webb

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